First the head, then the body

Roger Trapp wonders why accountants are electing a leader prior to a possible merger
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The Independent Online
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Institute of Chartered Accountants has lost touch with the real world. Here it is, pressing ahead with a planned merger with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, and lo and behold it announces the contenders to run the organisation in three years' time.

Obviously, even such a mighty body as the Institute of Chartered Accountants can take nothing for granted, and business must continue as usual. But some might find it odd to see the list of candidates for vice-president appearing amid a series of presentations on the proposed link-up.

The problem, of course, is that the 89 council members - no, not all members of the organisation are trusted with the vote - are not picking somebody to take over when Keith Woodley, the current president, leaves office in June. Such are the complications of the electoral system devised when the institute embraced democracy earlier this decade that Michael Groom, Sheila Masters and Chris Swinson are standing for the post of vice- president. Having carried out this role for a year, he or she will become deputy president for a further 12 months before succeeding to the top position.

But that is not to say that this election is all bad. Each of the three candidates represents one of the key constituencies in the body.

As a sole practitioner and non-executive director, Mr Groom - a 21-year council veteran - can speak for both the so-called backwoodsmen and accountants in business, as opposed to public practice, while Ms Masters, who was unsuccessful last year in her attempt to become the institute's first female president, is a partner with Big Six firm KPMG, where she has gained extensive experience of the public sector.

Perhaps the greatest interest, though, will focus on Mr Swinson. Having joined BDO Stoy Hayward from Binder Hamlyn (which has since become part of the Arthur Andersen organisation), he is a formidable spokesman for the "second-tier" firms. Renowned for his literary allusions and wit in council debates, he is also felt to realise more than most of his colleagues that the accountancy profession needs to set its house in order if it is to regain public confidence.

As head of an institute working party on regulation, he has moved the institute closer towards the sort of independent approach to discipline favoured by its rival the Chartered Association of Certified Accountants than many would have thought possible.

Notably, he goes further than his rivals in addressing his manifesto to the failings of the institute. He feels that "careful analysis and sober reflection, coupled with positive action", are the keys to dealing with the challenging environment in which the organisation finds itself.

More interestingly, perhaps, not one of the documents makes anything other than a nod to the prospect of merger. Do they know something the rest of us (including the management accountants) do not?

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